Exoskeletons, microsurgery robots, robotic prostheses—robotics and the medical sector have never complemented each other so well. In 2014, UCL created Louvain Bionics, a centre of expertise unique in Europe that aims to drive medical robotics research. It’s a key challenge for the future that’s already been met with numerous projects, collaborations and successes.
UCL’s Louvain Bionics assembles 18 professors and 64 researchers to address questions of movement and robot-assisted motion. Expertise abounds: engineers, psychologists, doctors, ethicists, neuroscience and motor skills science researchers, all assembled to pursue one ambition: help patients reap maximum benefit from research progress in bionics sciences and techniques. Why such emphasis on interdisciplinarity? Above all, collaboration between engineers, neuroscientists and doctors leads to more rapid and tangible research results. Adding an ethicist is essential: advances in medical robotics are important, but one of the university’s missions is to assess the impact on society of new technologies and address related questions. At what moment does the machine replaces human ? Can a surgical robot be programmed to make instantaneous decisions during an operation? If the operation fails, who’s responsible?
Engineers and doctors side by side
The other advantage of a centre of expertise in medical robotics in a comprehensive university such as UCL is being able to test and validate medical devices ‘from bench to bedside’. An induction and training laboratory designed for both bionic technology creators (engineers) and users (doctors and scientists) develops innovative know-how in medical practice and speeds delivery ‘to the bedside’, thereby saving time. Benoit Herman, coordinator of Louvain Bionics, explains, ‘If an engineer designs a prototype alone, he’ll end up with an effective machine but surely not one adapted to the needs of doctor and patient. If he designs it in collaboration with a medical team, he’ll be more able to determine their needs and immediately optimise his robot.’ This gains precious time and accelerates access to clinical trials and thus shortens the time to the robot’s actual use by the patient or medical teams.
Louvain Bionics has already created or participated in the creation of several prototypes and spin-offs through collaboration with specialised partners and by obtaining financing:
- Axinesis: The REAplan and REA2plan robots developed by the UCL spin-off Axinesis, enables brain-damaged patients to relearn arm movements (after, for example, a stroke) based on repetition and frequency of movement. Axinesis is also involved with Louvain Bionics in the ROBiGAME project, which aims to develop and integrate intelligent serious games in interactive physiotherapy robots. This project receives funding from the Walloon Region’s WBHealth.
- 3D-Side: This partner company produces patient-specific cutting guides and implants.
- UMRI ImagX-R: This is an eclectic research and innovation unit dedicated to image-guided proton therapy cancer treatment, funded by the former UCL spin-off IBA subsequent to an initial public-private partnership.
- Project AVATAR²: A robotic medical device for replacing the aortic valve via minimally invasive surgery on a beating heart. This project receives funding from the Walloon Region’s BioWin health competitive cluster.
…and tomorrow’s projects, between innovation and accessibility for all
Louvain Bionics is currently working on two ambitious projects:
- Exoskeletons and active low-energy consumption prostheses with two-way links enabling sensory information exchange with the user.
- Robot-assisted microsurgery makes possible complex actions and sutures on a scale too small for purely human intervention. Financed by UCL (Special Research Fund) and the Fund for Scientific Research.
Innovation is also achieved through projects aiming to develop low-cost systems more accessible to patients and clinicians, including:
- a lip movement measuring system to quantify elocution disorders. It uses consumer camcorders that cost 100 times less than professional 3D localisers (used to record movements of the entire body) but are equal in performance. This helps speech therapists, who are often self-employed, acquire a dependable, cutting-edge system.
- mechanical or myoelectric protheses using new rapid prototyping and 3D-printing technologies as well as open-source microcontrollers (whose designs are downloadable free of charge), in close collaboration with the Belgian non-profit Humanitarian Prosthetists & Orthotists (HP&O), which frequently carries out missions in developing countries and aims to make quality prostheses accessible to the poor, especially African children.
UCL’s Louvain Bionics was created thanks to a bequest of €1.086 million by Pierre De Merre via the Fondation Louvain.